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Flowing Along Biking Trails by France's River Lot

May 31, 1987|FRANK RILEY | Riley is travel columnist for Los Angeles magazine and a regular contributor to this section

CAHORS, France — It's the river of discovery for American travelers to France this summer.

And there are discoveries for every travel interest along the River Lot, which has become to foreign tourism--but not to French vacationers--a kind of second cousin to the Dordogne Valley, scarcely an hour's drive north.

But this summer the travel focus is broadening. Visitors from other European countries and from the United States are learning that the Lot River Valley is just as filled with scenic, historic and prehistoric discoveries as the Dordogne, and within easy reach 1868963944accommodations.

A Popular Destination

The French people have long enjoyed this river valley for their cycling, canoeing and kayaking vacations. Now Colorado-based Progressive Travels Ltd. has added bicycle tours of the Lot Valley to its schedule of trips along the Dordogne.

Three deluxe nine-day tours will pedal along the Lot River beginning June 12, July 31 and Sept. 16. All three trips will dip south to the white grape vineyards of the Tarn River Valley and then return north again to the Lot.

On a bicycle that is a full day of pedaling in each direction. Travelers by rental car can reach the Romanesque city of Moissac on the Tarn in little more than an hour of driving from Cahors, capital city of the Quercy region of France during the Middle Ages.

My wife Elfriede and I found that in addition to bicycles, kayaks and canoes were just as easy and inexpensive to rent.

Canoeing and Kayaking

Free guide booklets to canoeing and kayaking the Lot are available at the tourist office in the center of Cahors. They are carefully charted, with safety guidelines for portaging around the barrages.

The tourist office also has free guide booklets to bicycle touring routes from Cahors into the spectacular scenery and historic sites along the Lot River. The routes range in length from about 15 to 75 miles.

We treated ourselves to the best of both river valleys by driving east from Bordeaux along the Dordogne, through Bergerac and Sarlat into the countryside around Rocamador, then south toward the Pyrenees to Cahors in this region of the Midi known as Quercy.

There we stayed in the grandest chateau of the region, as well as in a cozy relais that is one of the many distinctively individual MinOtels throughout France.

We also found that the bicycle route planned for this summer's tours from Progressive Travels offers one of the best introductions to the Lot Valley, whether you drive it or pedal it or paddle all or any part of it.

A Nine-Day Tour

Each tour includes 12-speed bicycles, a support van, services of two bilingual guides, gracious accommodations, meals, taxes, gratuities and admittance fees to museums, castles and prehistoric sites. The cost per person for the nine-day tour is $1,590, double occupancy, plus the lowest available Air France air fare.

The tour begins three cycling days upstream from Cahors at Figeac on the Lot. First optional side excursion is to Capdenac, where from high above the river you can get a perspective of the route ahead. Capdenac, with its terraces and narrow streets, is believed to be the last outpost of the Gauls' resistance to the Romans. It was a strategic fortress during the Hundred Years' War and during the Wars of Religion.

Lodging for the next two days of cycling explorations is in the terraced rooms of Le Mas de Cariteau, a restored little village with its own beamed-ceiling restaurant and swimming pool.

One excursion from here is to the cave of Grotte de Pech-Merle, where 20,000 years ago Cro-Magnon artists created illustrations of horses, bison and mammals, leaving the imprint of their own hands as signatures.

Day three of the river bike route leads to St.-Cirq-Lapopie, a 12th-Century village that is part of a fortress on crags high above the Lot. This was one of the most impregnable fortresses of medieval France. Richard the Lion-Hearted tried and failed to capture it, and the English were equally unsuccessful during the Hundred Years' War. It was a Huguenot stronghold during the wars of religion.

Artisans Restore Village

Artisans, not the government, have restored this village. The second stories of Renaissance homes project over the street beyond the first story. This follows the pattern of nature's architecture--the Jurassic limestone cliffs--overhanging the driving and cycling road along the river far below.

Cyclists on the tour go on to spend two nights, as we did, at Chateau de Mercues, above the Lot River and close to Cahors.

This ancient fortified chateau belonged to the powerful and noble clergy of Cahors for almost 12 centuries. Towers and crenelated parapets rise above the stone walls. The interior has been restored to historic elegance, with high-ceiling guest rooms that have all the modern conveniences.

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